The “Great Railroad Strike,” the first and largest nationwide series of labor uprisings in the United States’ history, occurred in July and August 1877. Backdropped by the Long Depression emanating from the Panic of 1873, the collapse of federal Reconstruction in the South, and the cooperation and consolidation among owners of major industries, what became known as the “Great Strike” or the “Great Upheaval” was in fact a sequence of dozens of simultaneous and overlapping strike actions in which some 500,000 workers across various industries walked off their jobs. Many couched their struggle in a language of freedom centered on economic independence, appealing to other workers and the public through the ideology of labor republicanism. In addition to general strikes in some cities, labor actions shut down the nation’s most valuable and important industry, the railroads. At the same time, cross-class urban crowds protested urban and industrial conditions, skirmished with soldiers, and destroyed corporate property. Strike conduct was specific to trunk line and locale. Local political, ethnic, cultural, and kinship networks impacted worker action, as did the newspaper media. Likewise, civic responses to the strikes varied widely and were both shaped by, and helped shape, municipal and regional politics. Community, cross-trade, and cross-class support proved critical in places where the strikes were most far-reaching. The roots of the 1877 strikes lay in cumulative antagonism between railroad workers and owners. In an era when workplace accidents killed tens of thousands of workers and maimed hundreds of thousands more every year, railroad companies refused to equip workplaces with readily available safety devices. Employee grievances also included long and irregular working hours, low pay, and the absence of collective bargaining rights. However, the strikes themselves and the accompanying crowd actions that began on July 16 were instigated by workers on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in response to a series of wage reductions. A wave of stoppages and protests quickly spread outward along the rail lines to Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Chicago, Kansas City, and San Francisco, transforming from a railway strike to a more general labor and urban uprising. The episode reached its most radical zenith in St. Louis, where the shutdown of nearly all of the city’s industry, largely coordinated by the Workingmen’s Party of the United States, made it the first truly general strike in U.S. history. Workers outside the railyards and non-wage workers also participated in urban uprisings and the destruction of railroad property. Cities saw violent clashes between crowds and private police forces and militias, National Guard units, and federal soldiers. In all, over one hundred men, women, and children were killed in the violence. The strikes had profound implications in the areas of labor management, civil–military relations, and popular attitudes regarding capitalism, socialism, and labor organization. The quelling of the strikes led to new approaches in how city and state governments handled civil unrest. In particular, the strikes expanded ownership’s labor management instruments and practices, as governments proved willing to deploy the military against workers during labor disputes on a major scale, expediting the rise of the “robber baron.” These repressive measures were augmented by popular anticommunist hysteria—the first of several major “red scares” throughout U.S. history. Whereas many workers viewed the walkouts as prefiguring a “second American Revolution” or a culminating “emancipation of labor,” building on the implicit promises of the Civil War, business elites and political authorities were frightened as perhaps no time in U.S. history. Economic crisis and scarcity fears enabled politicians and sensationalist newspapermen to create and exploit popular fears of foreign-born radicalism. Apprehensions concerning labor organization, tinged with xenophobia, permeated the upper and middle classes, furthering a sea change in national political priorities. Meanwhile, although organized labor, limited to “skilled” rail workers, had been in decline throughout the 1870s, the Great Strike’s lack of coordination alerted many workers to the need for expanded cooperation in the form of unionization. Occurring at the tail end of Reconstruction, the Great Railroad Strike helped shift the center of political gravity in the nation from questions of political rights in the post-emancipation South to those of capital and labor in the industrial North. Most historians view the Great Strike as a watershed event. As a cultural transit from Reconstruction to the Gilded Age, 1877 forced the “labor question” into the nation’s popular consciousness.
Brenden W. Rensink
On July 27, 1882, a group of at least seventy-five “Turtle Mountain Indians from Canada” crossed the US–Canada border near Pembina, Dakota Territory, ordered white settlers off the land, and refused to pay customs duties assessed against them. “We recognize no boundary line, and shall pass as we please,” proclaimed their leader, Chief Little Shell. Native to the Red River region long before the Treaty of 1818 between the United States and Great Britain drew imaginary cartographies across the region or the 1872 International Boundary Survey left physical markers along the 49th parallel, Little Shell’s Chippewas and Métis navigated expansive homelands bounded by the natural environment and surrounding Native peoples, not arbitrary latitudinal coordinates. Over a century later, Indigenous leaders from the United States, Canada, and Mexico formed the Tribal Border Alliance and hosted a “Tribal Border Summit” in 2019 to assert that “Tribes divided by international borders” had natural inherent and treaty-bound rights to cross for various purposes. These Indigenous sentiments, expressed over centuries, reveal historic and ongoing conflicts born from the inherent incongruity between Native sovereignty and imposed non-Native boundaries and restrictions. Issues of land provide a figurative bedrock to nearly all discussion of interactions between and boundary making by non-Native and Native peoples in North America. Indigenous lands and competing relations to it, natural resources and contest over their control, geography and territoriality: these issues underpin all North American history. Adjacent to these more familiar topics are complex stories of boundaries and borders that were imposed, challenged, ignored, violated, or co-opted. Native histories and experiences at the geographic edges of European empires and nation-states uncover rough and untidy processes of empire-building and settler colonial aspirations. As non-Natives drew lines across maps, laying claim to distant Indigenous lands, they also divided the same in arbitrary manners. They rarely gave serious consideration to Native sovereignty or rights to traditional or evolving relationships to homelands and resources. It is a wonder, therefore, that centuries of non-Natives have been surprised when Indigenous peoples refused to recognize the authority of imposed borders or co-opted their jurisdictional “power” for their own uses. Surveying examples of Indigenous peoples and their histories across imposed boundaries in North America forces historians to ask new questions about intercultural exchange, geopolitical philosophies, and the histories of nations, regions, and peoples. This is a worthy, but complex, pursuit that promises to greatly enrich all intersecting topics and fields.
Irish and American histories are intertwined as a result of migration, mercantile and economic connections, and diplomatic pressures from governments and nonstate actors. The two fledgling nations were brought together by their shared histories of British colonialism, but America’s growth as an imperial power complicated any natural allegiances that were invoked across the centuries. Since the beginnings of that relationship in 1607 with the arrival of Irish migrants in America (both voluntary and forced) and the building of a transatlantic linen trade, the meaning of “Irish” has fluctuated in America, mirroring changes in both migrant patterns and international politics. The 19th century saw Ireland enter into Anglo-American diplomacy on both sides of the Atlantic, while the 20th century saw Ireland emerge from Britain’s shadow with the establishment of separate diplomatic connections between the United States and Ireland. American recognition of the newly independent Irish Free State was vital for Irish politicians on the world stage; however the Free State’s increasingly isolationist policies during the 1930s to 1950s alienated its American allies. The final decade of the century, however, brought America and Ireland (including both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland) closer than ever before. Throughout their histories, the Irish diasporas—both Protestant and Catholic—in America have played vital roles as pressure groups and fundraisers. The history of American–Irish relations therefore brings together governmental and nonstate organizations and unites political, diplomatic, social, cultural, and economic histories which are still relevant today.
Emancipation celebrations in the United States have been important and complicated moments of celebration and commemoration. Since the end of the slave trade in 1808 and the enactment of the British Emancipation Act in 1834 people of African descent throughout the Atlantic world have gathered, often in festival form, to remember and use that memory for more promising futures. In the United States, emancipation celebrations exploded after the Civil War, when each local community celebrated their own experience of emancipation. For many, the commemoration took the form of a somber church service, Watch Night, which recognized the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Juneteenth, which recognized the end of slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865, became one of the most vibrant and longstanding celebrations. Although many emancipation celebrations disappeared after World War I, Juneteenth remained a celebration in most of Texas through the late 1960s when it disappeared from all cities in the state. However, because of the Second Great Migration, Texans transplanted in Western cities continued the celebration in their new communities far from Texas. In Texas, Juneteenth was resurrected in 1979 when state representative, later Congressman, Al Edwards successfully sponsored a bill to make Juneteenth a state holiday and campaigned to spread Juneteenth throughout the country. This grassroots movement brought Juneteenth resolutions to forty-six states and street festivals in hundreds of neighborhoods. Juneteenth’s remarkable post-1980 spread has given it great resonance in popular culture as well, even becoming a focus of two major television episodes in 2016 and 2017.
Jews began to arrive in the present-day South during the late 17th century and established community institutions in Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, in the colonial era. These communities, along with Richmond, Virginia, accounted for a sizable minority of American Jews during the early 19th century. As Jewish migration to the United States increased, northern urban centers surpassed southern cities as national centers of Jewish life, although a minority of American Jews continued to make their way to southern market hubs in the mid-19th century. From Reconstruction through the “New South” era, Jews played a visible role in the development of the region’s commercial economy, and they organized Jewish institutions wherever they settled in sufficient numbers. In many respects, Jewish experiences in the South mirrored national trends. Jewish life developed similarly in small towns, whether in Georgia, Wisconsin, or California. Likewise, relationships between acculturated Jews and east European newcomers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries played out according to similar dynamics regardless of region. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Jewish life in the South resulted from Jewish encounters with the region’s particular history of race and racism. The “classical” era of the Civil Rights movement highlights this fact, as southern Jews faced both heightened scrutiny from southern segregationists and frustration from northern coreligionists who supported the movement. Since the 1970s, overall trends in southern history have once again led to changes in the landscape of southern Jewry. Among other factors, the continued migration from rural to urban areas undermined the customer base for once-ubiquitous small-town Jewish retail businesses, and growing urban centers have attracted younger generations of Jewish professionals from both inside and outside the region. Consequently, the 21st-century Jewish South features fewer of the small-town communities that once typified the region, and its larger Jewish centers are not as identifiably “southern” as they once were.
The United States Colored Troops (USCT) were a collection of racially segregated, as mandated by the US War Department, Black US Army military units that served during the Civil War and the Reconstruction era. Their collective military service is widely known for playing critical roles in ending slavery, protecting freedpeople, defeating the Confederate military, enforcing multiple US government policies, and reframing gender ideology while making explicit demands for more racially inclusive conceptions of citizenship. Black men, from a wide range of backgrounds and ages, comprised the 179,000 individuals that served in a USCT regiment. For instance, some soldiers were formerly bondsmen from Confederate states, while others (who were freeborn) came from free states and even internationally (including Canada). USCT regiments were never solely male-exclusive domains. Numerous Black women supported the US war effort, in and outside of the military spaces, in many ways. For example, Susie King Taylor served as a laundress and nurse in the Thirty-Third United States Colored Infantry. Thus, Black women are important figures in understanding Black Civil War–era military service. Ultimately, USCT regiments, and their supporters, fought for racial and social justice (during and long after USCT soldiering ended). Their service also provided avenues for prominent abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, William Still, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary, who used Black military service to make clear demands for slavery and racial discrimination to end. Meanwhile, various Black communities (especially Black women) lobbied to protect their civil rights (while attempting to support USCT soldiers’ training). Additionally, the families of USCT soldiers vocalized to the Bureau of Pensions (a branch of the US government) to remember their collective wartime sacrifices through Civil War pensions. Their collective actions highlight that the history of USCT regiments requires an understanding of Black families and communities whose lived experiences remain relevant today.